Photo: Pictured above, Emma Sansom Middle School student Kenaji Nelms (left, white shirt) portrays Dizzy Gillespie with Lillian Jamar (right, white dress) who portrays Ella Fitzgerald as the two dance the Lindy Hop. In the background, Cartavious Higgins (left, black shirt) portrays Cab Calloway and dances the Charleston with Jaidence Guyton, who portrays Billie Holiday.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
On Feb. 27, Emma Sansom Middle School traveled back in time. For Black History Month, faculty and students transformed their school into an era where African American culture, literature, art and music flourished—the Harlem Renaissance.
While the students listened to speakers in previous years discuss famous African Americans throughout history, they were typically only exposed to the activism and individuals during the civil rights movement. The faculty at Emma Sansom wanted their students to understand that while the civil rights movement marks a significant and monumental era in American history, African American men and women paved the way for that era to develop years and years before its manifestation.
“A lot of times, [students] think that the civil rights movement was the only time when African Americans were able to break into new adventures, with new authors and poets,” said guidance counselor Dr. Janekia Mitchell. “But things happened a long time before the civil rights movement. Taking them back to the Harlem Renaissance era gives them an opportunity to see where Jazz music started, where theater broke out and the many barriers that were broken even at that time.”
Following the Great Migration where African Americans left rural southern settings and moved to urban northern neighborhoods, a section of Manhattan in New York City once designated for upper-class white families faced rapid overdevelopment and empty buildings seeking tenants. As more and more African Americans moved to Harlem, the community developed into a hub of cultural enlightenment, drawing talented and intellectual individuals who shared the unified belief of pursuing their dreams, shattering stereotypes and reforming the representation of black experience in American society.
Emma Sansom’s sixth, seventh and eighth-graders represented Harlem’s bold influencers on each hallway, transforming their school into an interactive museum. From the front entrance ordained with twinkling lights to the endless creative research projects aligning each wall, from the streamers framing seventh grade’s speakeasy to the red carpet leading guests to eighth grade’s Apollo Theater, the dedication Emma Sansom students and faculty poured into their Black History Month tribute reflected in the smiles and expressions of awe that settled over every person’s face who walked through the school’s doors.
As visitors traveled down each hallway, they observed decorated doors featuring prominent themes, people and events during the Harlem Renaissance. A red carpet led towards one door that commended women’s advancements and progressive actions during the Harlem Renaissance, signifying the sense of empowerment women recognized that served as a predecessor to later movements.
“The women saw the men progress and learned they could dream in color as well,” said Emma Sansom Principal Jacqueline Tiller.
Students and faculty alike dressed in 1920s fashion, representing specific instrumental men and women during the Harlem Renaissance. Students portrayed actors and actresses, artists, singers, musicians, writers, scientists, inventors and doctors, telling visitors the impressive contributions historical figures devoted to history. Several students expressed that they chose to represent certain individuals because they related to those men and women. Kamyria, who portrayed blues singer and songwriter Victoria Spivey, shared Spivey’s love of singing and Destiny and Simone were interested in researching the first African American professional basketball team The Renaissance (Spartan Braves) because they both enjoy basketball.
“I chose Dr. Charles Drew because he inspired me with the work he did with blood banks and the American Red Cross,” said Kristen Martin, who dressed in a white lab coat.
Shakiyyah Roystoer studied author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, reading Hurston’s famous novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and creating a display based around the book. Their Eyes Were Watching God details the story of Janie Crawford, a middle-aged African American woman who experiences three significant relationships throughout her life and discovers herself in the process. At 14, Roystoer shared that Hurston’s novel influenced her perception of womanhood and taught her a valuable lesson that she will treasure.
“[Their Eyes Were Watching God and Hurston taught me] to know your worth as a female,” said Roystoer.
Eighth graders Lillian Jamar, Kenaji Nelms, Cartavious Higgins and Jaidence Guyton recreated the Apollo Theater for visitors, focusing on music’s grand presence during the Harlem Renaissance. Representing renowned jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and influential musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway, the students rubbed the Apollo Theater’s traditional stump for good luck before dancing the Lindy Hop and Charleston for impressed audiences.
“[Learning the dances] was fun,” said Nelms, who portrayed Gillespie and danced the Lindy Hop with Jamar, who portrayed Fitzgerald. “It was kind of hard to learn with the turns, but I got it!”
Harlem’s musical influenced flourished in Emma Samson’s cafeteria, which the students converted into a Jazz Café. Under the direction of Stacy Harris, the school’s band performed the era’s jazz hits, entertaining students and community members as they ate lunch. Accompanying the band were dancers dressed as flappers, who performed alongside two students portraying the Nicholas Brothers, who were known for their talented, daring and acrobatic “flash-dancing.”
Students celebrated Harlem’s literary contributions through acting out “Thank You, Ma’am,” a short story written by Langston Hughes. In “Thank You, Ma’am,” a young man named Roger attempts to rob Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, who when presented with the opportunity to seek justice against Roger, instead treats him with kindness. Through the play, the students revealed that compassion can create a change.
Dr. Mitchell shared that the interactive museum’s influence lies in the experiences it creates for students who feel free to learn in fun, collaborative methods. Mitchell believes that when students have fun while they learn, they retain the knowledge they are taught and carry it with them into their homes. While the students channeled their excitement into their projects, the parents proved equally as intrigued, learning along with their children. In a three or four week process of educating, planning and creating, the students, teachers and families linked to Emma Samson witnessed how men and women destroyed boundaries and overcame limitations. Emma Sansom students recognized how the Harlem Renaissance evoked positive change while allowing men and women to achieve their goals, and inspire generations to come, learning that they hold the same power to dream, influence and impact history. Through exploring the past, Emma Sansom Middle School develops a deeper respect for the achievements that formed the present and garners an understanding that motivates a brighter future.
“When you are actually exposed to something and you actually walk into it and experience it yourself, you’ll retain it,” said Mitchell. “You’re able to take that with you, and you’ll never forget it. I hope [the students] never forget the experience they had transforming Emma Sansom Middle School into this particular era. I hope that they’ll become investigators, that they’ll research things, that they’ll look a little bit further and that they’ll dream big, discovering that their people—of any color, race, nationality—are all special, and we can all do amazing things.”